The St Cross Building and its architects

By | 8 May 2015

As we begin preparations for our participation in “Oxford Open Doors” in September, we realize that many people may not be aware of the commemorative book that we published for the 50th anniversary of the Law Library last year.  The book included an architectural introduction which is reproduced below.

The entire book (Celebrating 50 Years of the Bodleian Law Library: 1964-2014) can be downloaded from  The architectural introduction begins on p. 133.  This is followed by a selection of quotes from architectural literature (pp. 140-145) and then four contributions written specifically for the book by Professor Adrian Forty, Professor Stephen Kite, M.J. Long (architect), and Jeremy Melvin (architectural historian and curator) (pp. 145-151).

The St Cross Building and its architects

Ronald Richenburg, Senior Library Assistant, August 2014

The Bodleian Law Library has a significant place in the architectural history of Oxford. Completed in 1964 and now listed at Grade II*, it was part of the first wave of overtly modernist architecture in a university (and city) that had only begun to embrace Modernism in the late 1950s.

The need for a library

During the first half of the twentieth century, the Bodleian’s small but growing collection of legal materials moved from one unsatisfactory location to another until, in 1956, plans began to be made for a purpose-built law library on largely unoccupied land at the junction of Manor Road and St Cross Road. At an early stage, it was decided to include two other libraries (for the English Faculty and for the Institute of Economics and Statistics, though the latter has since moved to another building) and the associated faculty offices, as well as lecture theatres and other shared accommodation, and the inclusion of these disparate elements in a single architectural conception is a significant feature of the design. The building itself is known as the St Cross Building, but it has often been called (particularly in the early literature) the “Group of Three Libraries” or “Manor Road Libraries” or similar, and it is not unusual for the building to be referred to simply as ”the Law Library”, presumably because creating a law library was the raison d’être of the entire project.

The architects

The slightly remote location meant that a modern design was less controversial than would otherwise have been the case, and the architect appointed was Sir Leslie Martin (1908-2000) who on this project (and several others) worked in association with Colin St John Wilson (1922-2007). Their first assistant was Patrick Hodgkinson, and the design team also included Douglas Lanham.

Leslie Martin

It is difficult to overstate the importance of Martin and Wilson in the development of modern British architecture. Leslie Martin’s most famous work is undoubtedly the Royal Festival Hall, completed for the Festival of Britain in 1951 when he was Deputy Architect (i.e. deputy head of the Architect’s Department) of the London County Council (LCC). He later became Architect to the Council and remained in that position until 1956. The Royal Festival Hall, immediately popular with both architects and the public, did much to increase public acceptance of modern architecture. But the Royal Festival Hall was simply the most high-profile of many projects of the LCC. In the post-war period, there was not only extensive rebuilding after the devastation of World War II, but also, and perhaps even more significantly, a great expansion of public services, particularly public housing, under the new Labour government of Clement Attlee. In London, buildings for the public sector were built by the LCC which had the largest architectural practice in England at the time, and Martin’s senior position gave him enormous influence over the direction of architecture and the careers of younger architects.

Even before the war, Martin had attained a degree of prominence, first by being appointed (at the age of 26) head of the school of architecture at the Hull College of Art, and then by co-editing (with Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo) Circle: International Survey of Constructive Art (1937, reprinted 1971), a highly influential volume with contributions by many of the leading artists and architects of the time who embraced “the constructive trend in the art of our day”.

After leaving the LCC, Martin became the first Professor of Architecture (and head of the department) at Cambridge University where, under his leadership, a relatively minor school of architecture became internationally known. During this time (1956-1973) and afterwards, he also maintained a private practice, devoted chiefly to university and cultural buildings. As described by Sarah Menin and Stephen Kite,

Martin enjoyed great prestige in these years: ‘beautiful commissions were being handed to him as a celebrity’. He was invited to undertake more projects than he could possibly handle, and frequently handed opportunities on to talented younger architects: thus [James] Stirling gained the Leicester University Engineering Building commission (1959-63, with James Gowan) that launched his international reputation. A roll-call of the architects that Martin influenced as supporter, mentor and collaborator would include many of the key names of British twentieth-century architecture.[1]

Martin’s other buildings in Oxford include the Zoology and Psychology Building, the University Offices in Wellington Square, and several smaller buildings for two of the colleges. He also continued to write extensively, particularly on the theoretical aspects of urban planning and the use of space, and he is well known for his efforts to relate theory to practice.

Colin St John Wilson

Colin St John Wilson (later Sir Colin, but widely known, informally, as Sandy Wilson), like Leslie Martin, exerted enormous influence through his buildings, his writings and his teaching. His early career included several years at the Architect’s Department of the LCC where his work was partly supervised by Martin and where his close colleagues included several other individuals who became key figures in British modernism.

When Martin became Professor at Cambridge, he invited Wilson to join him, both on the Cambridge faculty and in his own architectural practice. Wilson accepted this offer, and worked in association or in partnership with Martin on a number of major projects, mostly in the university sector, throughout the remainder of the decade and into the 1960s. Wilson also carried on a practice under his own name (later to be known as Colin St John Wilson & Partners), continuing into the new millennium, with some later projects in association with Long & Kentish. The work was largely for universities and cultural institutions, though there were also several houses for private clients, which have been widely discussed in architectural literature. However, the most significant project was the British Library in London, completed in 1997 after decades of planning, controversy and changes in government policy, and this is now the building for which he is best known.

Wilson’s teaching career included several periods as a visiting professor at Yale and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and then, in 1975, he was appointed Professor of Architecture at Cambridge (succeeding Bill Howell who had taken over from Leslie Martin two years earlier), holding that position until 1989.

The most significant influence on Wilson was the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) who, though a modernist, did not always follow the modernist orthodoxies that were current at any given time. In a famous speech to the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1957, Aalto said (quoted by various writers with minor differences in wording), “The architectural revolution, like all revolutions, begins with enthusiasm and ends with some sort of dictatorship.” Wilson embraced this line of thought and developed it further in one of his best-known books, The Other Tradition of Modern Architecture: The Uncompleted Project (1995).stcross2

The building

The highly acclaimed design of the Bodleian Law Library was the end result of a design process in which two other schemes were also considered, and which went hand in hand with the development of a “generic plan” for a library.[2] This generic plan, adapted for varying size requirements, was the basis of the design of the other two libraries[3] in the building, and had some relevance to several smaller academic libraries, both in Oxford and in Cambridge.

The main reading room of the Law Library and of each of the other two libraries is a large cube, brick on the outside, but with a roof consisting almost entirely of skylights which provide brilliant illumination during the day. The cubes rise above the offices, lecture halls and other facilities which are located in a series of interlocking horizontal planes. The monumental external staircase, rising two storeys to the Law Library, but with access to common facilities at first-floor level, is a significant unifying feature and has been widely discussed.

The influence of Alvar Aalto can readily be seen, and one of Aalto’s most celebrated works, Säynätsalo Town Hall (completed in 1951) in Finland, is often said to be a major architectural antecedent. Like St Cross, this is a multiple-use building of brick construction with a broad external staircase, and with the main element (the council chamber) contained within a large volume of bold geometry that rests on and rises above the other components. There are also echoes, particularly in the interior spaces, of another major work by Aalto, the Viipuri Library (completed in 1935).[4] Other influences have been suggested as well: the long horizontal planes have a precedent in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959); and the organization of internal spaces may owe something to Louis Kahn (1901-1974), though the influence of Kahn was probably more direct in the earlier schemes that were considered.

The first two schemes for the Law Library were characterized by clusters of columns which defined separate spaces for groups of readers. But the Bodleian view was that the multiplicity of columns would prevent library staff at the main enquiry desk (referred to then as the “control desk”) from having a clear view of the reading room (and of the readers!). It was also thought that a split-level location for the enquiry desk was impractical. Wilson, however, was very favourably disposed towards the second scheme, and the concept of defining intimate spaces within a larger one was used in much of his later work.

But, in light of the objections, a third scheme was developed, and this is what we see today. When one enters the Law Library, the most striking feature, which is immediately noticeable, is the great sense of light and spaciousness: this is the main reading room which is of double height, lit by skylights, and is large enough to contain seats for 232 readers in the main area. The effect is enhanced by the white walls and the light-coloured wood used in the shelves and fittings. Entry is from one corner, where the main enquiry desk is located and from which there is a clear view across the main seating area to the shelves which stand beyond on two sides. A gallery overlooking the main area has similar rows of shelves.

On both the main floor and in the gallery, there is further seating beyond the shelves, alongside the windows – small tables on the main floor and closed carrels in the gallery. These seating arrangements were intended to provide for the needs, as then perceived, of the different categories of readers: undergraduates who were more likely to need assistance (and supervision) in the main area; smaller and more remote tables for graduate students who were expected to be more independent; and the relative privacy of closed carrels for faculty members. Library policies have evolved, and the current scheme is much more flexible, but its origins in the original scheme can still be seen.

When the library was planned, a fundamental requirement was that the entire collection should be on-site and immediately available. The size of the library made this possible, and convenience was enhanced by the close proximity of many of the shelves to the desks and carrels.

With the growth of the collection, together with the creation of the Freshfields IT Training Room and the addition of the Official Papers collection, the library now occupies the two lower floors as well as the main floor and the gallery. Nonetheless, space is still a problem (likely to be exacerbated by future alterations to the building), but we fully expect our reading room to remain an efficient and pleasant place for all of our users.stcross3

A personal note

I am an intermittent user of the Law Library as well as a full-time staff member and, from both perspectives, I’ve always found the library a wonderful place to work. The ability to browse on open shelves is extremely useful, and the light and spaciousness (and particularly the great height) make the main reading room positively inspirational. Although opinions about modern architecture vary enormously, I think that the general satisfaction of our users indicates that the building works very well, even for those who are not consciously aware of architectural considerations.

[1] Sarah Menin and Stephen Kite (in part, quoting Colin St John Wilson), An Architecture of Invitation: Colin St John Wilson, Ashgate, 2005, p. 64.

[2] Leslie Martin described the generic plan in his book Buildings & Ideas, 1933-83: From the Studio of Leslie Martin and his Associates, Cambridge University Press, 1983. See pp. 40-41. This is followed by a discussion of the St Cross Building (described as “Library Group, Manor Road”), pp. 42-49.

[3] The word “libraries” is used here to refer to the libraries for which the building was designed, even though one of them has since moved to another location.

[4] It is also known as the Vyborg Library, as the town of Viipuri was ceded to the USSR and re-named at the end of World War II.